In 2007, high school friends Kae Burke (she/her) and Anya Sapozhnikova (she/her) took over the lease of a dilapidated squat on an industrial strip in Ridgewood, Queens. ‘We were just starting out as emerging performers and really getting into circus arts’, says Kae Burke on a sunny morning in Brooklyn. ‘We lived as an art collective and would hold circus skill-sharing and costume-making workshops, as well as the occasional house party.’
The empowering name they gave their creative hub, situated in a loft beside the wholesalers and manufacturers of Troutman Street, was the House of Yes. Just a year later, disaster struck when a fire tore through the building. With financial support from their community, they found their new home in a former icehouse in East Williamsburg.
‘It began as a live-in workspace but, in this larger space, we could build a circus theatre that doubled as an event space’, says Burke. In 2013 another firewall came their way in the form of a huge rent increase, a familiar barrier to such underground venues. Never ones to give up, after a three-year gap House of Yes returned in 2016, bringing on new partners Ilan Telmont (he/him) and Justin Ahiyon (he/him) and taking over a large commercial building with increased height for the acrobatics, signaling their arrival by painting a giant YES on the side of the building.
Part nightclub, part circus theatre, the current House of Yes speaks to the power of performance to inspire and heal. ‘I really believe the best parties are the ones where everyone is participating’, says Burke. ‘It’s not about a sea of people looking at the stage to one DJ, to us it should feel like an insanely elaborate house party.’
While their programme features big-name DJs and some of today’s most renowned variety shows, featuring aerialists, go-go dancers, fire breathers and stilt walkers, House of Yes supports the artistic expression of everyone that attends. ‘Our parties are very interactive and everybody’s invited to participate’, says Burke. ‘We have many dress-up theme nights, and there is always an invitation for discovery.’
‘It can be very healing to be in a space that invites you to be who you are.’
We asked Kae to explain how they make House of Yes what it is before exploring the issues that have an impact on their community.
You encourage creative self-expression at your parties. Would you agree this can be even more important for the LGBTQIA+ community?
‘It can be very healing to be in a space that invites you to be who you are, whoever that might be. This is especially important for people coming from a background where their truth isn’t celebrated, appreciated or even allowed. So, we created a space where it feels good to be yourself.’
Your programme is really diverse. How do you decide what events to put on to get the balance right?
‘We do a lot of talent scouting and building relationships with artists, producers and promoters. House of Yes is a platform for all types of creatives; our role as curators is to develop inspiring experiences and nurture fresh talent while creating different events and making sure our calendar is as diverse as our audience.’
Have you seen attitudes to the LGBTQIA+ community change since you started?
‘I’ve seen it change across New York and globally. Now, there is so much more awareness, understanding and acceptance about queer identities. I’ve watched the breaking down of binary norms and how all the emerging identities are being celebrated. Back in the day, you were straight, gay or lesbian and now there is a whole spectrum of identity. People have so much more choice to find their communities and to experience themselves and really discover who they are.’
Your parties seem very democratic where it’s not just the people on stage that are the performers?
‘Definitely. For example, we do what we call dancefloor casting, where someone will catch our eye wearing the most amazing outfit or dancing ecstatically. Sometimes people just have a vibe about them, and you go “Oh my god, can we hire you”. That's super fun. We don’t have formal auditions, a lot of it is just show up and get involved in our little creative community.’
What are some of the main challenges of creating spaces like yours?
‘For so many years House of Yes was actually underground because you couldn’t live where you work, and if you wanted to host your own event, getting a liquor license was extremely expensive. Even today, there are so many permits and regulations to navigate through. For folks just getting into hosting spaces, owning venues or throwing events it can be an endless challenge.’
Even before the pandemic, venues and spaces were closing. What can be done to encourage similar spaces to yours to open up and survive?
‘We need ongoing support for young creative entrepreneurs to understand how to navigate finances and permits so they can establish themselves and host spaces for their communities. Also, what would really help is support from the government when spaces are empty or underutilised, so they can be given to artists for free or a reduced rent. And of course, once a space does exist, go to it, support it, promote it and tip generously.’
One of the things this COS project is looking at is the whole concept around safer spaces for the LGBTQIA+ community. Is there anything formal you have in place or is it more the culture you nurture?
‘It’s a little bit of both. We don’t tolerate discrimination of any kind. We have a very robust safer spaces policy and as a venue we do have trained staff and security people to help maintain that intention. We also believe in the responsibility of the guests to bring their best selves forward.’
Is there anything you would like to see in the future in terms of nightlife for the LGBTQIA+ community?
‘As a society we need to understand that people don’t always come from backgrounds that have the privileges of safety, whether that be emotional, physical or financial. People need to be generous in their support and in understanding the unique needs of creators from the LGBTQIA+ community so that their expressions can exist in the universe.’
Can you share how the T-shirt design matches the House of Yes aesthetic?
'The heart-shaped design is really all about the idea that LOVE is the VIBE! The interconnected lines and shapes are like communities, coming together to create something unique and beautiful.'
‘House of Yes is a platform for all types of creatives.’
QUICK FIRE Q&A
Who would be your dream booking for House of Yes?
What building in the world would you most like to take over for a party?
‘The surrealist sculpture park Xilitla in the Mexican jungle.’
What is your favourite other spot in Brooklyn?
‘A tiny wine bar and dance space called Mansions.’
What is the best circus theatre act you have ever seen?
‘OPIUM by Spiegelworld in Vegas.’
How would you describe House of Yes?
‘It’s like Studio 54 and Cirque du Soleil made a love child.’
Words by Andy Thomas
Portrait by Lila Barth
Archive imagery courtesy of House of Yes
Discover the COS Pride 2023 limited-edition T-shirt capsule collection, featuring four exclusive designs from four of the most iconic queer club experiences in the world. 100% of the profits from the sales of each piece will be donated to LGBTQIA+ charities including Not a Phase, Margate Pride, Observatori Contra l’Homofòbia, London Friend & Kaleidoscope Trust.
As part of our celebrations for Pride 2023, Horse Meat Disco has curated a playlist exclusively for COS Sounds.
PRIDE 2023: SINK THE PINK
PRIDE 2023: CHURROS CON CHOCOLATE
PRIDE 2023: HORSE MEAT DISCO